The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the complete incompetence of Swedish public health experts, and much of the Swedish Media. (Part 1)
Since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, the Swedish Public Health agency has wanted to play down the risk that Sweden faced, and many of the members of the Swedish media have been pushing the same message instead of holding a light on those in power and asking tough questions.
My issues have been many during the last 9 months of news coverage, but I think that the coverage from the last few weeks has been what really just caused me to blow up, so I felt like I needed to get my thoughts together and post it here, for the world to see, so that everyone can see how ridiculous the whole situation is.
Last week the Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell had an interview with the newspaper DN where he explained that the high death total from Covid-19 in Sweden could be caused by the fact that we had a lower rate of flu infections during the 2019–2020 flu season. Later in the interview he also claimed that Finland did better than Sweden because “they had less people who traveled during their winter break, they have less immigrants, they do not have a city as large as Stockholm, they were in general better prepared, testing many people from the start.” So in the article, we see that he gave 6 different reasons for why he thinks Sweden has had less success in saving our residents from catching and dying from Covid-19.
The journalists in my opinion, had a few issues with the article. First, they linked a report from WHO right above a quote from Tegnell, where he says that “the new report shows a connection between a low death rate from influenza and a high death rate from covid-19. and vice versa.” The problem that I see is that the report that they linked, and the report that Tegnell was referring to are not the same. I was unable to find any report from ECDC, or from WHO which reported this around the time that he had this interview. I find it misleading to place a link to the WHO report, and place his quote under it because it clearly leads the reader to think that it is in that report, and many readers are not going to go through the trouble of clicking the link to see that it doesn’t match.
The next issue that I have with the article is an issue that I have had with many journalists since the beginning of the pandemic, and that is it feels as though they have a hard time asking the basic questions. They asked Tegnell if we should be scared of continuing to meet with others, and his response was “no, the level that we hang out with others in Sweden right now does not seem to be causing big problems. It is the work places that stick out, and the home. But we can’t all live in our own room and lock ourselves in.” In my head, I feel like a few questions should have popped into the journalists heads. The first being “How do you know where people get infected?”; The second being, “Isn’t school a workplace for children and adults?”; The third being, “If you know that people are getting infected at home, why have you not put in a quarantine for those who live with someone who is already infected?”
One other issue that I noticed with the article is that the journalists seem to be totally fine with Tegnell nearly dehumanizing the deaths. They wrote that Tegnell claims that we need to put the number of deaths at elderly care homes into perspective. “in the special care homes alone there are about 80,000 residents and there were maybe 2000–3000 deaths among them. The number is high, and terrible, but it is not enormously high.” This actually rings a lot like a phrase from one of the emails that was sent between Tegnell and some of the outsiders that the public health agency has trusted for help during this pandemic.
“Det skulle betyda 10,000 döda. Tråkigt men ingen totalkatastrof” translates to “It would mean 10,000 dead. Sad, but not a total catastrophe.”
After that article from DN another article appeared in SvD as a follow-up to that interview. This article has done some things right, and then fails in similar ways to the first article. They did a good job at looking at the influenza statistics and reporting what they found, which was that there is not any proof that Sweden had significantly less influenza deaths than the other nordic countries. They bring in a professor of epidemiology to talk about why he thinks that the statement from Tegnell was not necessarily giving the full picture. Then they speak with Tegnell.
Its in their speaking with Tegnell that I have an issue with the journalist. The journalist took the statement to Tegnell and asked him what he though, and Tegnell said that he still believes that he is right. Great. But then he refers to a youtube video from Ivor Cummins, and a “study” about the Swedish death statistics. They link to both things, just as I have done here. They then said that the “study” refers to data from Euromomo, which collects data on the death rate. They quote Tegnell saying “There is a publication in the bottom of this, which I have read and I think it seems adequate. It shows numbers from Euromomo which seem real. There is no reason to believe that they have manipulated them.”
Here is the issue that I see, the journalists did not bother to fact check anything. They just printed what he said and accepted that it was not problematic at all. In fact, it was not until DN did another article that it was mentioned who the authors of the “study” are. This follow-up from DN did do a better job at showing why the youtube clip is problematic, but they are still missing some things, and they still very clearly have not read the “study.”
In the article from DN we see that they mention that the “study” was written by three economists, but not that these three economists have ties to libertarian think-tanks in 4 different countries, and therefore a political interest in writing this paper. They also failed to mention that it is VERY strange that Tegnell is citing a “study” by three economists because in an interview on March 19th he said very defensively to the media that “we have worked very hard this whole time to have the highest levels of public health remaining in Sweden. There are others taking care of the national economy.” and SVT wrote that Tegnell totally refutes the claims that the Public Health Agency has taken any sort of consideration to the economy” The 21st of September DN publishes another article where they again place their focus on the problems with the youtube video. Unfortunately again neglecting to talk about the issues with the “study.”
It isn’t until the 23 of September that we get an article in DN where journalists question that the “study” has not been peer-reviewed. The issue is that they still are missing some VERY important details. This report is still mostly focused on the youtube clip. Something that they probably should have mentioned is that this is not the first time that a controversial clip has made the rounds at the Public Health Department, and actually gotten a positive response from them. On the 19th of April Giesecke sent a clip around of a video from Knut Wittkowsky, which was removed for violating youtube’s community guidelines.
The end of the report from DN asks an interesting question though, but somehow manages to again not ask the questions that seem obvious, or at least the questions that feel most relevant. They ask Tegnell if he knew that the “study” had not been peer reviewed, and his response was very telling. He said “It definitely looked published when I read it. It usually means, when speaking of scientific journals, that it is peer reviews. Then there will always be opinions on what is published.” as well as “I am not saying that he [Cummins] is right or wrong, I am just pointing to the importance of thinking for a second before you make categorical judgments of the death rate.”
Before asking Tegnell this question the reporters did a decent job at pointing out the hypocrisy of the Public Health Agency brushing off studies where they claim that the authors did not have enough scientific support. Although they also allow Tegnell to claim that the article appeared to be published in a medical science journal. (which anyone with two eyes could see there was no proof of whatsoever.)
So what I am wondering is why the next question out of those journalists mouths was not “So you are saying that you can’t tell the difference between a peer reviewed article and a non-peer reviewed article?” It would also be good to ask him “which medical journal did you see this study in?”
I am extremely disappointed that the Swedish media has decided to put on rose-colored glasses when it comes to Anders Tegnell and the Public Health Agency. It feels like most of the journalists will accept whatever answer the agency or its representatives, give to the media without actually diving below the surface. There have been a few really great reports during this pandemic, but the reporting about this situation is simply atrocious. This should be a national scandal, unfortunately because the media appears to not have bothered to read past the first page of the “study”, they have still not been able to capture the bigger picture surrounding this situation.
In my next post I will detail why all of this is incredibly problematic, not just for our public health, but for our international relations, and for our democracy.